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There is a lot more to carrying a concealed firearm for self-defense than snapping a holster on your waistband and walking out the door. It’s a serious commitment that will impact pretty much everything someone does outside their home, from the clothes a person wears and how they wear them, to the way they get into a car and buckle a seatbelt, to the exact mechanics of picking something up off the floor—or at least, it should.
If you conceal carry, that means you carry a gun as much as possible to protect yourself and loved ones. It means having a self-defense mindset and having that defensive firearm at the ready. Today, there are a lot of people in the U.S. who may have the necessary physical tools for self-defense, but not the skills or the mindset, which is far more important than which handgun, caliber, or holster someone chooses.
Last year saw more than 8.4 million Americans become first time gun owners, according to NSSF retail surveys, and 2020 also saw about 820,000 people join the ranks of permitted or licensed concealed carriers in the U.S., according to a report from the Crime Prevention Research Center.
All in all, about 7.6 percent of American adults have carry permits. Outside of the eight states with heavy restrictions on concealed carry permitting, the CPRC estimates 9.2 percent of the population has a permit.
Of course, those figures don’t include many folks who live in the 20 constitutional carry states that do not require licensure or permitting for concealed carry (soon to be 21 if the governor of Texas signs a recently passed bill into law).
That’s a significant chunk of the population. But how many of those new gun owners, who just want to feel like they have a measure of defensive capability, have received the training necessary for defending themselves effectively? How many have made the necessary mental commitment to carry and to get training? And for how many folks is carrying a firearm some kind of half measure?
Understand What You’re Getting Into
People who have recently made, or are in the process of making, the decision to carry must closely examine and understand why they’re doing it and what their overall goals are. Buying a carry gun to simply feel better and safer shouldn’t be one of them, because guns don’t automatically do that. Just as a firearm cannot harm someone on its own, a gun cannot defend anyone if there isn’t a competent user behind it.
Dave Hartman is the Training Director at Gunsite Academy in Arizona, one of the country’s premier firearm training institutions. He is a retired Marine with a lifetime career in law enforcement under his gun belt. He says Gunsite has seen a notable uptick in students who have zero experience with firearms over the past year and a half.
“These are customers who have never owned a gun before, never shot a gun before, and some who can’t admit to their family, friends, and co-workers that they own guns, for various reasons,” Hartman says. “People go out there and they buy that gun, and a lot of them just aren’t seeking training. They buy that gun and they think that’s the end of their problems. To them it’s a pacifier.”
The first step in developing the correct mindset for concealed carry is understanding the gravity of potentially using a deadly weapon in self-defense, and how preparing to do so should change somebody’s life.
Noted firearms trainer, author, and former U.S. Army Delta Force member, Kyle Lamb, says he carries absolutely everywhere he goes. If a venue or location doesn’t allowed concealed carry, he doesn’t go there unless he must.
“If you say you’re going to carry a gun, then I say you should carry it wherever you can, legally,” Lamb says. “There are times where you legally can’t carry a gun, then fine. If you’re going to go into a sporting event, or a government building, or an airport or anywhere you have to go through a metal detector, then be professional about it and leave it in a secure location.”
Hartman says the same, and both extremely experienced trainers also agree that there can be no half-measures when it comes to self-defense. They say newbies have to be prepared to take it seriously from the very beginning and to realize they’ll have to change a lot—not only their day-to-day behavior, but also the kinds of clothes they wear, the places they go, and the situations they have to anticipate and avoid.
“Carrying a concealed weapon is a change in lifestyle,” Hartman says. “You have to learn to dress around the gun; you have to take into consideration the types of guns you’re going to carry for specific purposes. I live up here in northern Arizona on eight acres and I carry a 1911 all the time at work and while working around the property. But I have to take into consideration that I may have to go to, say, a dinner event. I’m going to have to swap guns with my mode of dress. A lot of people who are new to concealed carry don’t consider they might have to have two or three guns so they can carry in various situations.”
Carrying a Gun Is a lot of Work
If you are dedicated to carrying 24/7 it will most likely require you to own and train with more than one firearm and holster. Even if a carry method may not be ideal, if it allows you to have a defensive firearm on when you otherwise couldn’t, Lamb says, it’s better than not being armed.
“Carrying a gun every day all day is a lot of work,” says Lamb. “You can’t be a super snappy dresser, and I’m not. I try to keep my shirt untucked, so if I’m carrying appendix or on my side, I can conceal that weapon. A lot of times, when I go to do presentations, I carry a gun on my ankle. I have people all the time tell me how that’s a terrible carry position. OK, but I have a gun with me all the time, versus leaving it in the truck.”
These days, being selective about firearms and shooting gear in general is difficult due to shortages. Still, there is a dizzying array of gear and firearms to choose from, and picking a gun is just the first of several difficult but necessary choices that must be made.
Whether a new carrier chooses outside the waistband (OWB) or inside the waistband (IWB) determines the broad type of holster they will buy, but then they must decide where on the waistband they will carry. A lot goes into determining the answers to both of those questions, including the gun that’s being carried and how well it can be concealed in conjunction with a person’s body type.
For example, thinner people generally find that the increasingly popular appendix carry position offers the best concealment and easiest draw from an IWB holster, as well as excellent overall control of the firearm. For heavier people with even a small gut, it can be a wildly impractical and extremely uncomfortable carry position. It can also be a bit dangerous.
“I think appendix carry is something you really have to take seriously, because it’s a dangerous place to re-holster a gun,” Lamb says. “Do people do it every day? Yeah, absolutely. When I’m going to re-holster that (appendix) weapon, it’s like I’m disassembling a nuclear device. I’m super careful. What I usually do, ideally, when I carry appendix is take the gun and holster off together and put them on the same way.”
Hartman says the belt “is the foundation upon which a house is built,” but beyond that, the size, make, and model of the gun, the exact holster and carry position are choices each carrier must carefully make for themselves with good advice from a trusted trainer.
Practicing Concealed Carry at Home
A new carrier should test out their gun and holster extensively in front of a mirror or camera with a variety of clothing while performing everyday activities to make sure the gun stays secure and hidden. There are a number of additional daily chores that might require a significant change in habit and even more testing and practice at home.
Preparation goes beyond the exact mechanics of bending over to pick something up from the floor while there is a gun on your hip. For example, what do you with your carry gun if you need to use a public restroom? It’s better to map out that process at home than to do it for the first time in a stall when nature calls.
One thing you definitely don’t want to do is unholster your gun at any time. You really don’t want to remove the gun and holster from your belt either, because that means you have to set it down somewhere, which means you can leave it somewhere. It happens all the time, and Lamb says nobody should think it can’t happen to them. Here’s his method for keeping the gun and holster the whole time:
“During this process the holster and gun want to flip upside down when you’re loosening your belt because it’s top heavy,” Lamb says. “If that happens, you muzzle yourself or the person next to you and lose control of the gun, or if you have a bad holster, the gun could fall out.
“I wear a legit leather belt or a lightweight underbelt. Both are long enough so when you go into the bathroom, you can loosen your belt, but not unhook it completely,” he adds. “Loosen it almost all the way, undo the pants, and hang onto the weapon and holster as you slide them and the pants down together. Then, tighten that belt up again when it’s around your shins when you’re sitting there. This keeps it in control, on the belt, and off the floor. This is tough for some women to do, because of the way their belts are sized. They may have to be a bit more careful, fully unhook their belt, and then rehook it and tighten it up when it’s around their shins.
“It’s an involved process, but hey, carrying a gun is not easy, not easy at all.”
Men, Stop Buying Women Guns
To all longtime concealed carriers with newbie friends: All of this is a very personal process that you can’t really complete for someone else, so don’t try. Offer advice, but know the effective limits of butting in.
Both Lamb and Hartman said the single biggest mistake they see is men buying the gun they think a woman in their life wants, instead of a gun that actually fits her.
“A gun is a very personal thing, something that needs to fit the hand. A person has to be able to reach the trigger and manipulate the slide, and the gun should have a simple manual of arms,” Hartman says. “I tell guys, don’t buy women guns. Let them choose their gun. Go to an indoor range and try a few things. Don’t just listen to the kid behind the gun counter who has a plethora of XYZ guns they can’t sell.”
“I would discourage men from getting women the absolute worst gun to shoot for any first-timer: A lightweight .357 revolver,” says Lamb. “I see it all the time, and those are great little guns, but I can’t really shoot them well beyond close range. It’s a very difficult gun to shoot. If you hand that gun to a woman who is a new shooter and doesn’t have as big a hands as I have and maybe not as strong as I am, it’s not going to go well. Get them something they can actually shoot.”
And this doesn’t just go for men buying women guns. Nobody should feel obligated to carry a gun that isn’t right for them for any reason. Choose your own carry firearm.
Get Proper Concealed Carry Training
After all the basics of gun and gear are settled and a person is comfortable with shooting their handgun at paper and with the tenets of gun safety, it’s time to get some real training, force-on-force if possible.
Lamb says it’s always better to err on the side of caution and take a class that may be too easy rather than one that may be too advanced.
“I say start from a very basic level, because there are a lot of safety rules to make sure they learn up front,” Lamb says. “If someone takes a very basic course, they’ll become more confident with their gun. If they’re like, ‘I didn’t learn enough, that was too easy,’ then they can easily step up. But if they go to a class and everybody’s drawing from concealment and they’ve never done that, they’re going to be a soup sandwich.
“That’s the worst to me,” Lamb adds. “Because either that person is going to fake it and hurt themselves, or they’re going to be embarrassed because they don’t know what they’re doing, and it’s not going to be fun. It’s so much more fun if you can go in and say, ‘I’m brand new to this, teach me.’”
Hartman says a deep-dive class shouldn’t scare new carry gun owners away if it begins at the proper skill level.
“If people have the means and the money to jump into a three- or five-day class, god bless ‘em, go for it. If you can’t, start out incrementally. Take a CCW class. I don’t mean take a CCW class that’s just three hours of classroom time. Take a class where you actually have to shoot, where they make you shoot from a holster. Get an idea how to get that pistol out of the holster, safe gun handling, the safety of weapon manipulation, and then go from there in small increments,” Hartman says. “Don’t just take that basic CCW class and say, ‘Hey, I’m prepared to take on the world.’ You’re not. They’re just making you less dangerous than you were when walking into the class.”
Hartman says being a lifelong hunter doesn’t mean much in self-defense circumstances.
“People come in here and say they’ve been hunting since they were 12. I understand that, but the type of shooting that we’re teaching is defensive shooting,” Hartman says. “That means recognizing perceived danger and reacting in half a second to a second and a half. Can you read the situation, can you respond to that? Train as if your life depends on it or someone else’s life depends on it. Train until you can make that shot on demand. Train yourself to, if you see a situation unfolding, the easiest thing to do is turn around and leave the situation.”
Lamb says it doesn’t matter if you have a military or law enforcement background either—concealed carry is a different animal with its own specific mindset and skillset.
“No matter what you’ve done in the past, even if you are a former Army dude who carried a gun in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever, that doesn’t mean you’re super switched-on for concealed carry type weapons,” Lamb says. “Get the appropriate training. Again, that’s the most important thing right there.”
When it comes to finding training, there are destination schools like SIG Academy, Gunsite, and Thunder Ranch, but if you’re just starting out and have limited means, look online for local trainers and classes with good reviews and a good reputations. Ask the people at your local gun shop if they work with any local trainers or if there are any they can recommend. The NRA and NSSF also offer several resources for finding firearm training in your area.
A Carry Permit Does Not Make You a Gunfighter
There’s yet another layer of grave responsibility on top of all of this. A concealed carrier has to do everything in their power, at all times, to avoid confrontations that could result in having to use a defensive firearm. This is paramount.
Just because someone is carrying a legal defensive firearm does not mean they are a crimefighter. Additionally, they have a responsibility to hold themselves to the higher behavioral standard.
“We tell people the first thing you put on in the morning when you’re getting ready to leave the house is your halo. You don’t get involved in road rage incidents, you don’t get in arguments over a parking space or cutting in line, you don’t flip people off,” Hartman says. “You go out of your way to avoid putting yourself in a position where you’re going to have to present that pistol. Don’t try to be a hero or get involved in things that don’t concern you. If you see something, use that phone in your pocket, call 911, and be a good witness, but don’t get involved if you can avoid it.
“The more training you get the more you build that mindset,” Hartman adds. “Not everything can be solved by a gun. If you go to the gun, then a lot of things have gone wrong up to that point. Unless there’s imminent danger of death or great bodily injury, that gun doesn’t come out of the holster.”
At the same time, if things go completely sideways and someone is forced to draw their gun and fire in self-defense, they are then responsible for every bullet sent downrange, and those bullets cannot be called back. They must be prepared not only to make the necessary shot and make it well, but to potentially take a human life in the process.
“Every round you fire needs to hit its mark and you have to know your limitations. If you can’t make the shot, don’t,” Hartman says. “You can’t send a round downrange hoping it hits its intended target.”
Lamb says if a person carries, they should be truly prepared to shoot and kill another human being to defend themselves or their loved ones if necessary.
“When I do Combat Mindset courses for people, it’s pretty graphic. I walk them through scenarios, and if at the end of it they’re like, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ OK, there you go, you’ve made your decision,” Lamb says. “If you can’t draw your pistol and shoot somebody in self-defense, you don’t have the correct mindset. I also don’t want someone who is like, ‘I can kill anybody,’ because that’s a bad mindset as well. But if you can say, ‘I’ve made the decision that I will use this gun to take another human being’s life if I’m in a life-or-death situation,’ then you’ve made the necessary decision. If you can’t make that decision, I would say, maybe you shouldn’t carry that gun.”